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Thoughts on Social Media: Risks, Rewards and Uncertainties

By Jim Calloway

As I was finalizing this column, there were news reports that the so-called “affluenza teen” Ethan Couch and his mother had been arrested in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Readers will recall this young man stole beer from a Walmart and crashed his father’s truck into some stopped vehicles on a country road. Four were killed and another is paralyzed. His blood alcohol level three hours after the crash tested at three times the legal limit for adults.

There was nationwide outrage when the judge sentenced him to 10 years on probation. But I have to wonder how many of us would be as familiar with this case if not for that word – “affluenza.” The idea that being raised in an incredibly wealthy background, with all of the privileges and educational opportunities that brings, would be compared to some sort of disease that impairs one to such an extent that favorable treatment should be given in the criminal justice system is pretty stunning. You don’t have to be a lawyer to have a strong opinion about that concept that you might want to share.  Today we all have the ability to share our opinions worldwide through the use of social media.

This matter was likely destined for some national publicity because of the number of people killed. But these types of deaths are not uncommon. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every day almost 30 people in the United States die in motor vehicle crashes that involve an alcohol-impaired driver. That is one death every 51 minutes. This is a very regrettable statistic.

But, affluenza, who has ever heard of that? It was something new and controversial. In other words, it was a perfect topic to share your opinion about on social media. And today the mainstream media often follows the lead of social media. But clearly the online discussion over that affluenza “went viral.” Most of you know that going viral means that something online gains increasing attention because Internet users, through their social media accounts, are sharing the content within their network, prompting others to share the content just like a virus spreads. The phrase started by referring to viral videos on YouTube that gained a wide audience.

I am certainly not about to criticize the lawyer whose client received this incredibly generous sentence. But if the expert witness had used another term instead, it is fair to wonder if there would have been less national focus on this particular case.

So in addition to everything else a trial lawyer in a high profile case has to consider, there is now social media coverage as well as traditional media coverage, with the main difference being social media commentators are not bound by any journalistic standards of fairness and accuracy.

THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media has really changed a lot of things, particularly what can be kept quiet in a local community. Many family lawyers have a negative view of Facebook because they see the pain and difficulties that unwise postings generate.

The power of social media cannot be overstated. Whether this seems like a positive development empowering citizen journalism or online mob rule often depends on your interpretation of a particular situation.

Just ask Justine Sacco, the former senior director of corporate communications at IAC, an American media and Internet company. She made one stupid tweet about AIDS before boarding her plane to Cape Town, South Africa. Even though she only had 170 Twitter followers, by the time her 11-hour flight landed she was a focus of online rage from tens of thousands. There was even a hashtag circulating #HasJustineLandedYet and someone took her photo as she disembarked and tweeted the picture. She was immediately fired and went into hiding for a time. (See “How One Stupid Tweet Blew up Justine Sacco’s Life” The New York Times Magazine for more details.)
 
The lesson is that lawyers using social media should be careful about what they post and extra cautious if they allow others to post for them.

This fall I was asked to teach a CLE program on social media for the OBA and volunteered to teach another. The program at the OBA Annual Meeting was on marketing your law practice via social media.

Most lawyers appreciate that an online presence is required for law firms today. A law firm should first have a mobile-friendly traditional website before moving into social media because the goal of much social media marketing will be getting people to click on the link to the law firm website or to call the law firm. (But I am aware that some solo practitioners have a Facebook page for their primary online presence and do not have a website.)

I have also heard from lawyers who actively market their practice online through Google AdWords. They say that the price on these has moved so high that they seem unaffordable. These are the ads that appear next to Google search results. A recent publication  noted that the most expensive words of all are those related to legal marketing. For example, a click on the ad for “San Antonio car wreck attorney” cost the advertiser $670.44, with second place going to “Accident attorney Riverside VA” at $626.90.

Likewise search engine optimization (SEO) is often quite pricey. This is used with the goal that your law firm’s web site appear in the top of search results naturally and avoid the “pay per click.” On one of our recent Digital Edge podcasts, “Website Wizardry: The Right SEO for Your Law Firm,”  Pennsylvania lawyer Jennifer Ellis estimated that high-quality SEO should cost between $3,000 and $10,000 per month, with the higher end of the range being more likely. That is a substantial investment that will be viewed as too big a business risk for many law firms.

It is also sometimes difficult to determine how much of the traffic to your site is generated by the SEO.

SOCIAL MEDIA MARKETING

I have been saying for quite some time that every law firm, even a solo practice, should have a traditional web page.

The last few years have made it apparent that your web site must be “mobile friendly” because more and more searches are done on smart phones and mobile devices.

I think it is now the time to say every law firm should have a Facebook page. This is not the same thing as an individual lawyer having a personal Facebook page. An easy distinction is to note that with a personal Facebook page, all of your friends can post to your timeline, where with a business page the business controls the content, except for reviews and Facebook design restraints.

Let me attempt to prove this last point with one statistic.

According to a recent Pew Research Center study on social media users. 72 percent of adult American Internet users now use Facebook which translates to 62 percent of the entire adult population.  If you factor in that some American adults cannot use Facebook due to factors such as disability, incarceration, or lack of Internet access, that statistic becomes even more compelling.

What do people do on Facebook and other social media? They post their content and read/view content from others. But they also share, comment on and like the social media content posted by others. So while it might be possible that someone seeking to refer a friend to you might go to your website, copy the URL and then text or email it to their friend, it requires a real commitment. With social media, they are reading and liking and sharing all the time. So having a Facebook page increases the possibility that other Internet users will share your content within their network.

It is the social sharing that has made social media so popular.

I’ve noted that a Facebook business page is different from the personal pages that many of you now use to communicate with friends or family. Setting up a business page is not difficult, but some thought should be given to this in advance and there are some challenges because of the nature of our profession.

A lot of thought should definitely be given to the graphics that will be used on the homepage. The Internet is a graphical media and pictures are important. Law books on a shelf or a gavel do not make interesting visual content.

One should review in advance the Facebook for Business pages provided by Facebook. These have a very good overview of the process and include information on setting up your page, marketing/advertising, etc. Start at www.facebook.com/business/overview

The first thing to do in setting up a business Facebook page is to choose a classification of your business. Lawyers may be tempted to choose the “Local Business” option. However, finish reading this article before you select local business because, believe it or not, you may want to select “Websites & Blogs” as your type of business. You will then need to enter some general information including the standard hours of operation, the address and, if appropriate, parking instructions.

Be very careful when selecting an official name for your business page. This will generate the URL for your business page, and, while it can be changed once, it is not an easy process. The most significant issue is the challenge of setting up a firm name listing three or four lawyers and what happens when a lawyer leaves the firm. If a partner leaves the firm to take the bench then it will be absolutely necessary to remove the name from the page. One may be tempted to set up some other firm name like Green Country Law that would not need to be changed if there is a change of lawyers. But having different firm names between the law firm website and law firm Facebook page could be confusing to consumers.

The setup process should not be initiated until you have several photographs that you plan to use available. The profile picture in particular serves as the visual representing the firm that everyone will frequently see. Although it is not especially creative, many law firms will want to go with a picture of their office building or perhaps the front door that has the name of the firm. Give some thought to this. Facebook is a visual medium. Also note that the profile picture needs to be square and the recommended size is 180 x 180 pixels.

The lawyers in the firm who have individual Facebook pages may want to add the business page as one of their favorites. But be cautious about publicizing your page too much in the early stages of its development as there will not be any compelling content that will encourage a user to return.

REVIEWS

One thing to appreciate and understand is that a Facebook for Business page will normally include consumer reviews. While these are often great for most types of businesses, they are often a challenge for lawyers. Because of the nature of reviews, it is not possible to get a review taken down just because a reviewer had something negative to say about the business.

Here are some potentially problematic reviews a client (or a complete stranger) might post.

  • My lawyer is the greatest ever. He is smarter than all of the other lawyers and specializes in family law. We won our case and it was obvious that the lawyer for my ex-wife had no idea what he was doing.
  • We won our trial and my lawyer did a great job. It probably helped that she went to law school with the judge.
  • My lawyer did a terrible job and never returned my phone calls. He never listened to me. (Posted by someone you have never represented. Of course, this is a different kind of problem if posted by a former client.)

An ethics problem results when an improper endorsement appears on your website.

After all, you have limited ability to persuade a client to remove something from their personal social media sites. But others might assume that you can control what is on your Facebook page and proving that Facebook will not let you remove a laudatory review is a challenge most lawyers would not want to handle.

When I taught the CLE program in November, I told the audience that reviews were problematic and a lawyer should be cautious with allowing them. The more I have considered this issue; I have decided that a law firm may not want to enable reviews at all – at least when the firm’s new Facebook page is being launched. This is not to imply anything wrong about the reviews.

But it turns out disabling reviews isn’t as simple as it should be. Between the time I did my initial research and the time I finalized this column, Facebook changed the rules again. Not only did the instructions posted by third parties no longer work, but pages that Facebook published on this subject I could locate through Google were mysteriously offline. Hopefully Facebook just rearranged things and is writing new Help pages, but with Facebook you never know.

So here is one way to turn off reviews on an existing Facebook business page today, with the disclaimer that Facebook may change things tomorrow.

1.    Go to “About”
2.    In the dropdown box where you select your page “Category,” choose “Websites & Blogs”
3.    Second-level dropdown needs to be chosen as to what type of “Website & Blog”. (On the OBA’s Facebook page, we chose government.)
4.    Save changes.

PAID SOCIAL MEDIA ADVERTISING

So why, given these complications, would a lawyer still want a Facebook business page?

The reason is paid advertising. All of those promoted posts you scroll by on Facebook are there because someone paid for that placement. Facebook and Twitter know a lot about their users so you can design a precisely targeted campaign – by geographical area, gender and many other factors. Yes ladies and gentlemen, this is why many of the promoted posts you see on Facebook are things you have an interest in. Facebook knows. And you can limit the maximum campaign cost.

I did a $50 maximum Twitter campaign just to see how it worked and over several days, I got over 8,000 impressions and a handful of new followers. The total cost was under $45.

The verdict is still out on how useful this will be for lawyers. But most of us are more comfortable spending $50 or $100 here and there while we measure results, both in terms of new clients and increased website traffic. It takes more faith to sign up to pay $3,000 -$10,000 per month for SEO.

CONCLUSION- LISTEN TO THIS

I do not mean to suggest that all SEO doesn’t work or the many experts in that field are all overpriced.

In fact, in December we did a Digital Edge podcast where an Internet marketing expert shared his thoughts on “The Internet’s Role in Client Development.”  He is Gyi Tsakalakis, who is a non-practicing lawyer and the founder of AttorneySync, an online legal marketing agency.

Gyi says it is still true today that people often seek recommendations for products or services from people they know, like and trust. But the difference today is that they are often communicating with those people via social media. Gyi's advice is not limited to social media. He covers much more, including why the traditional law firm website is still important. This is a very good podcast.

And on the podcast site, Gyi has provided us with many links to great resources. I strongly encourage you to listen to this podcast.

Mr. Calloway is OBA Management Assistance Program Director.  Need a quick answer to a tech problem or help solving a management dilemma?  Contact him at 405-416-7008, 1-800-522-8065 or jimc@okbar.org.  It's a free member benefit!

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal -- January 16, 2016 -- Vol. 87, No. 2